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Petitions of the week

Beards and Brady (i.e., religious freedom and criminal procedure)

This week we highlight cert petitions that ask the Supreme Court to consider, among other things, whether Georgia corrections can prevent a Muslim prisoner from growing an untrimmed beard in accordance with his religious beliefs, and whether defendants can only bring Brady claims for the prosecution’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence if they meet a due diligence requirement.

Muslim prisoner argues that Georgia corrections’ limit on beard lengths violates his religious exercise

In Smith v. Ward, Lester Smith maintains that the Georgia Department of Corrections is not following the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Holt v. Hobbs. In Holt, the justices ruled that an Arkansas prison policy that prevented a Muslim prisoner from growing a half-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Under RLUIPA, the government may not “impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution,” unless the government proves the restriction is “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and is “the least restrictive means of furthering” that government interest.

After Holt, Georgia corrections allowed all inmates to grow half-inch beards. According to Smith, however, growing a full-length beard is a tenet of Islam and one of his sincerely held religious beliefs, though he accepts that some Islamic teachings permit adherents to grow a fist-length beard if they cannot grow an untrimmed beard. In district court, Georgia corrections admitted that its policy substantially burdened Smith’s religious exercise, but it argued that various safety and security concerns justified its refusal to allow beards of any greater length. The district court rejected this argument, noting, among other things, that 37 states, the District of Columbia, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons allow beards of any length (in some cases, after one receives a religious exemption). Nevertheless, the district court also rejected Smith’s request for an untrimmed beard, letting Georgia impose a three-inch limit.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed, re-instating the half-inch limit. Unconcerned with other states’ policies, the 11th Circuit ruled that Georgia corrections met its burden under RLUIPA by showing “a calculated decision not to absorb the added risks that its fellow institutions have chosen to tolerate.” In his petition, Smith argues that the circuits are split over deference to prison officials.

Convicted CEO asks justices whether Brady imposes a due diligence requirement on defendants

In Blankenship v. United States, the justices are asked to decide whether a due diligence requirement exists for defendants advancing claims under Brady v. Maryland. In Brady, the justices ruled that the Fifth Amendment requires the prosecution to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. Following an explosion at a coal mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners, federal prosecutors charged Don Blankenship, then the CEO of the company that owned and operated the mine, with willfully violating safety regulations. After Blankenship had already paid a $250,000 fine and served one year of imprisonment for a misdemeanor (the jury acquitted him on all felony counts), the government disclosed 61 witness interview reports. Of these, Blankenship’s petition states that “it is uncontested” that at least five contained favorable evidence for the defense from five different witnesses. Indeed, the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility launched an internal investigation that found the prosecution “recklessly violated discovery obligations.”

Blankenship then filed a motion to overturn his conviction on the ground that the prosecution violated Brady. However, both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit rejected his argument. To the 4th Circuit, Blankenship could not rely on Brady because he had not engaged in “self-help” to locate the suppressed evidence. In his petition, Blankenship argues that this due diligence requirement for defendants advancing a Brady claim (an approach shared by five other circuits and 16 states) conflicts with the approach of six circuits and eight states, as well as Supreme Court precedent.

These and other petitions of the week are below:

Old Dominion Electric Cooperative v. PJM Interconnection, LLC
Issue: Whether state-law claims that allegedly conflict with federally filed tariffs involve a substantial federal question; or whether the filed-rate doctrine merely operates as a federal preemption defense that, under the well-pleaded-complaint rule, does not confer arising-under jurisdiction.

Smith v. Ward
Issues: (1) Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit erred in applying the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when it held that Georgia need not grant a religious accommodation offered in 39 other prison systems; (2) whether RLUIPA allows religious accommodations to be denied based on any plausible risk to penological interests, if the government merely asserts that it chooses to take no risks; and (3) whether RLUIPA prohibits courts from granting any religious accommodation short of the full accommodation sought by a plaintiff prisoner.

Blankenship v. United States
Issue: Whether, to establish a violation of Brady v. Maryland, a defendant must show that he could not have obtained the suppressed, exculpatory evidence through his own independent efforts of “self-help” or “due diligence” as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit and five other circuits have held, or whether the defendant’s failure to uncover the evidence independently is irrelevant, as the remaining six courts of appeals have held.

Kerr v. Planned Parenthood South Atlantic
Issues: (1) Whether spending-clause statutes ever give rise to privately enforceable rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and if so, what the proper framework is for deciding when they do; and (2) whether, assuming spending-clause statutes ever give rise to privately enforceable rights under Section 1983, the Medicaid Act’s any-qualified-provider provision creates a privately enforceable right to challenge a state’s determination that a provider is not qualified to provide certain medical services.

Recommended Citation: Andrew Hamm, Beards and Brady (i.e., religious freedom and criminal procedure), SCOTUSblog (May. 27, 2022, 4:54 PM),